Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"dressing for recession"

I was listening to NPR today and heard this radio essay entitled "Dressing for Recession." Click on this link (or copy and paste it--I can't get the link to work for some reason) to read the full text or listen to it. (It's only 3 minutes long.)

It's about a stay-at-home dad (which in itself is a story worth repeating! Yay for stay-at-home dads, like my dad and my husband and some of our wonderful friends!!!) who goes to thrift stores and finds adult clothes to make into clothes for his daughter. It's pretty cool that he's able/willing to go to all that trouble! The picture at the beginning of this post is of his daughter in an outfit he made her. I'm impressed!

At the same time, I'm kind of flabbergasted by his expressions of embarrassment at having to shop at thrift stores, and his description of the "disposable generation" in which he grew up. Does it really take something like this "economic downturn" to get Americans to think about not throwing everything away? Does it really have to embarrass us to shop at thrift stores or to reuse other things?

To me, I think it should embarrass us that we would be willing to spend "$40 for the latest Janie and Jack dress or $30 for something from the Gap or Gymboree" for a child who will outgrow it in a year or less. Why would one spend that kind of money in the first place??? We (my husband and I) almost always shop at thrift stores--perhaps it's just that our family has always been in an "economic downturn" ever since we both graduated from high school and had to buy all our own stuff...but still, it's a matter of pride to find the cheapest, coolest stuff at a thrift store and a matter of embarrassment to pay over $20 for any article of clothing, and that only once in a blue moon (how often is that, by the way?).

I'm glad we have this situation in some ways--so that middle class Americans have to start thinking outside of the "disposable generation." But of course for people who were struggling to make ends meet anyway, who didn't have the luxury of spending $30-40 on children's clothes, what of them? What if they've been spending $1.50 on their kids' outfits all the time, and now can't afford food? And what about the fact that our ever-disposable lifestyle has for decades caused those around the world to not have enough, when for us "there's always more?"

Is this "economic downturn" going to have the effect on this generation that the Great Depression had on my great-grandparents' generation? Are we willing, and do we have the stamina we need, to scrimp and save and do without? Or are we going to continue printing ourselves $800 billion more until it becomes as useless as Monopoly money?


Kathryn said...

Hi: Your post if right on! The trouble is, most Americans don't even know how to find a thrift store!! I think they're fun! and have trouble buying new stuff! BTW whenever there is a full moon twice in one month, the 2nd one is called a "blue moon". That will happen in Dec.'09 (on the 2nd and 31st). Have fun shopping! but only at thrift stores! Happy T-day! Kakee

Anonymous said...

Very good post. I didn't listen to the NPR essay because my speakers have packed up and I'm being too frugal to buy any more!

I'm sure the recession/depression/slump/whatever-it-turns-out-to-be will have a big impact on popular culture. Will there be a revival of make-do-and-mend, of improvising with the materials at hand, 'bricolage' as the French say? I certainly hope so. Will there be an upsurge of anger and nihilism as in the late 70s and early 80s (punk, skinheads &c.) as consumer plenty vanishes like a mirage? Probably that as well.

Some commentators (see e.g. Rob Hopkins at talk of the need for a Great Reskilling, a relearning of the practical life-skills that have been widely lost during the Disposable Era. I don't know how to sew, and nor does my wife. Whether or not we learn, I hope our daughter will, and that her grandmother, who grew up in the war-and-rationing world of 1940s Britain, will teach her.

I sense your post hinting at something else as well, the need to protect children as far as possible from the pressures of adult consumerism (clothes at Gap &c.), so that they have time and a protected space in which to learn and grow before being thrust into the world of adult choice and responsibility. It shocks me to see even pre-school children dressed in branded gear to look cool and sexy as if they already had to compete with adults for approval.

Rowan Williams has written well on this (in Lost Icons):

"...children need to be free of the pressure to make adult choices if they are ever to learn how to make adult choices. For them to be free for irresponsibility and fantasy, free from the commitments of purchasing and consuming, is for them to have time to absorb what is involved in adult choice. Failure to understand this is losing the very concept of childhood. But it is just this failure to understand that is evident in the slippage of our public images and practices towards treating the child as a consumer, an economic and erotic subject, in ways that obscure the whole business of learning to choose."